DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season began, Aric Almirola promised his sponsors that he’d win them a race.
He kept up his end of the deal on Sunday.
Almirola won a rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona Int’l Speedway, which ended after 112 laps and the fourth rain delay of the weekend. In the process, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver collected his first career Sprint Cup victory and the first for car owner Richard Petty’s legendary No. 43 since April 1999.
The weekend also marked 30 years since Petty won his record 200th premier-series race. Almirola benefited from two massive wrecks – the first eliminating Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and others – to score a popular win.
“It’s so awesome,” Almirola said in victory lane. “The amount of effort that’s gone into this race team at Richard Petty Motorsports trying to get better and trying to bring it back to the winning race team that it deserves to be has been so cool to watch. Thirty years to the weekend that Richard Petty won his 200th is special.
“The good Lord was looking over us, but we had a really fast car.”
So did other contenders who didn’t make it to the finish. A 26-car crash on lap 88 took out a huge chunk of the field and left Kyle Busch upside down. No one was injured in that accident or a smaller one on lap 20, but the wrecks let under-funded teams get a chance at some glory.
Casey Mears scored his first top-five of the season by finishing fourth for Germain Racing, behind Almirola, Brian Vickers in second and Kurt Busch in third. Rookie Austin Dillon (fifth) grabbed his first career top-five result.
Denny Hamlin, Michael McDowell, Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top 10.
Smaller teams got their due on Sunday, but one of the sport’s biggest organizations had a day to forget.
Hendrick Motorsports didn’t place a car in the top 10 for the first time since June 2013 at Michigan Int’l Speedway. It didn’t help that all four cars were involved in one of the two big crashes.
Points leader Jeff Gordon led HMS with a 12th-place finish, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. – the second-place driver in points – in 14th. Earnhardt fell a lap down at one point after sustaining front-end damage to his No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS, but rebounded to salvage his day. The Daytona 500 winner in February attempted to be the sixth driver in NASCAR history to sweep both Daytona races.
Kasey Kahne finished 27th and Jimmie Johnson 42nd for Hendrick.
Almirola, drenched by rain as he celebrated his win, also became the first driver to put the iconic blue No. 43 car in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.